Book Review – “Romans 1-7 For You” by Timothy Keller

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In this exciting new addition to the God’s Word For You series, published by The Good Book Company, pastor Timothy Keller offers what he explains is not a commentary, but rather an “expository guide” to the first seven chapters of Romans, intended to serve readers by “opening up the Scripture and suggesting how it applies to us today” (10).  To this opening, he adds, “My prayer is simply that it will help you to, in Luther’s words, ‘break through’: in your understanding of the gospel message; or your experience of the gospel life; or both.”  In my opinion, he achieves his goal well, and offers his readers a tremendous resource for delving more deeply into this (especially) theologically rich portion of Scripture.

Since the book is not a commentary, Keller makes no effort to offer the same level of details regarding contrasting opinions, grammatical analysis, historical background, and theological interpretation that full-length commentaries offer (which is just fine, since there is already a vast multitude of wonderful commentaries on Romans in print), though fortunately, he does offer a very small and manageable amount of all these things in this book.  Clearly, this book is intended for “thinking laypeople” who are ready to dig deeper into God’s Word.  Since there are numerous references to the text and not as many quoted passages, it also seems intended to accompany – rather than replace – the reading of the actual biblical text (a feature which I, as a minister, greatly appreciate!).

It struck me as a bit strange that the book is divided into twelve “chapters”, yet each chapter is further divided into two equal readings (of about six pages each).  Why was it not simply acknowledged that the book actually has twenty-four chapters?  Was it feared that readers would be less drawn to the book if more chapters were listed on the contents page?  Or, were they limited in how many catchy chapter titles they could come up with?  The short readings are nice, of course, but any class or group who is considering using the book to guide their study should know up front they would either need to allow for twenty-four weeks’ worth of conversations, or else double up on the readings each week.

I was also a bit curious about how exactly this book was “edited from the study of Timothy Keller”, as the cover claims (which is different from the “Galatians For You” volume in this same series).  I looked in vain for an “acknowledgments” page, or any other place which explained how Keller originally presented this material, or what process it went through to become published in book form.  The only clue of other people participating in the process at all is the series preface by Carl Laferton, who’s named as the “series editor”.  Still, this doesn’t indicate whether Laferton, or Keller, or some anonymous third person actually crafted the final version what is written for us here.

Still, the book is presented (I think) in a very engaging and readable way, with plenty of inspiring observations throughout the text.  In fact, I have yet to see a more exciting and accessible resource to help lay-level readers genuinely study (and not simply think about) God’s Word – even as challenging a portion of God’s Word as the epistle to the Romans!  Though not aimed at advanced readers, Keller does a wonderful job of concisely answering many of the most commonly raised questions on each passage of Scripture, without venturing so far in his answers as to present any obviously debatable or controversial views on anything.  On the contrary, the comments that are offered by Keller seem to be solidly biblical, and well within the realm of agreement among the vast majority of evangelical Christians.

The one potential “hot topic” that Keller does mention is the so-called “New Perspective on Paul”, which he only discusses for two-and-a-half pages in the final appendix to the book.  While this may be a subject that most readers of this book have never even heard of, and perhaps no interest in (in which case they can ignore the appendix), it is one that is significant since it is being discussed with increasing regularity among scholars and pastors, and which can potentially affect the way that readers understand the writings of Paul.  Fortunately, though, Keller agrees with most evangelical pastors (and myself), concluding that “ultimately, we must still read the book of Romans as Paul’s defense of the gospel of free grace….The new perspective can’t dislodge the classic understanding of Romans” (198).

Other helpful features of the book include a glossary of challenging words (including conversational terms, such as “analogy” and “licentious”, as well as theological terms), a detailed outline of Romans 1-7, a helpful appendix on the theme of “idolatry”, and a recommended bibliography (which includes a diverse list of twenty-three titles, only six of which are commentaries on Romans).  Also, while the text itself is focused on helping readers understand the text of Romans, each of the (twenty-four) sections of the book concludes with relevant and probing “questions for reflection” – questions which are sure to be helpful in understanding how the text directly applies to our lives today.

Though it might seem a bit disappointing that this volume (like other forthcoming volumes in the series) only covers half of a biblical book, I believe that this should be regarded as a strength, rather than a weakness.  Far too often, we try to rush ourselves through books of the Bible, simply so that we can say that we’ve read it, when there is so much benefit to reading the text in smaller and more “digestible” portions, considering more deeply what the text actually means, and reflecting more thoroughly on how our lives should change as a result of what we’ve read.  Perhaps more than any other book in the Bible, Romans is a book that requires some thoughtfulness and reflection from readers – and perhaps better than any previous work, this new book from Timothy Keller should serve as a very helpful guide for the less experienced readers hoping to do so!

NOTE: I received this book for free from The Good Book Company through Cross-Focused Reviews in exchange for my preparation of this honest review of the book.  I was not required to write a positive review of the book.